EAST CHICAGO — One need look no further than an unassuming two-bedroom home on a street near St. Catherine Hospital to find a restored sense of humanity.
Children sent to the Nazareth Home in East Chicago come from the worst of beginnings. From abuse, drug addiction to just about anything else, the infants and toddlers roaming the rooms of this small home have been through worse than most adults.
But it isn't sadness or hopelessness that permeates these walls. It is love.
The smiling faces of the 210 children placed at Nazareth, since the home was founded in 1993 by Sister Kathleen Quinn as a ministry of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, line the walls.
Nazareth Home Director Jean Bowman said children come in looking bad, but that soon changes.
"They completely change the demeanor in their face," she said. "They smile and they glow and they giggle and they start thriving and they learn. You see a complete change."
Bowman said Quinn got the idea to open a foster home for infants while working at the hospital.
"At that time, initially she saw a need for babies with AIDS, and then it quickly turned to abuse, drugs, neglect," Bowman said.
The Nazareth Home accepts children from birth to age 6, and all are placed there through the Indiana Department of Child Services. Children typically stay up to a year, Bowman said.
THE NECESSITY OF VOLUNTEERS
Debbie Ferguson, of Highland, has volunteered at the home since its opening.
The practicing nurse normally visits once a week and enjoys taking the children on field trips to the zoo or an apple orchard.
"It's just fun to play with the kids and see how they grow," Ferguson said. "We've had some that have come so tiny and so sickly and now they're adults."
Ferguson said she hopes the care the children receive at the home will help them realize there are a lot of good people in the world.
She wants them to succeed in school and stay away from drugs so as to "not re-create what's happened to them."
"I just hope that they do well in life," Ferguson said.
She said it can be hard to see children leave the home, but many come back for an annual reunion.
Those who leave are not forgotten. As evidence, a picture of each child who called the house their home hangs on the walls.
A TOUGH START
Bowman said the state allows a maximum of five children at the home at a time, but that an exception is made in the case of siblings to avoid separation.
The home currently has six children, ranging from 6 months to 3 years old.
"I've picked up a lot of babies that were born drug addicted," Bowman said. "I've picked up a lot of babies that have severe medical issues, and the parents are on drugs and don't take care of them right and are severely neglected."
Bowman said she has noticed an increase in instances of babies being born addicted to drugs such as heroin and methamphetamines over the last few years.
Bowman said within the past year, the home received a young boy who had third-degree burns on one of his hands after it had been allegedly dipped in boiling water by his mother's boyfriend.
A 3-month old had been shaken so badly his eyes hemorrhaged and required surgery.
One baby girl only a few weeks old had several broken ribs.
"I have another infant that was severely abused when he was 6 weeks old and had a broken femur — completely broke — and a lacerated liver," Bowman said.
Bowman said she and her staff are not nurses, but receive invaluable training through a Purdue University Northwest program in which nursing students instruct the staff.
The home is aided by a dedicated team of volunteers, too, that come to cuddle babies, play with toddlers and do cleaning and other tasks necessary in any home setting.
A total of 33 volunteers gave 2,017 hours of their time to the home last year.
Bowman said it can be tough to witness the trauma the children have gone through, but there are plenty of success stories.
One example is a malnourished baby the home received this fall whose survival was not expected.
Bowman said he weighed only 8 pounds at about 8 months, and his body had shut down and gone into shock.
"He's doing wonderful now," Bowman said. "He's gained like 5 pounds since he's been with us."
Bowman said the Department of Child Services pushes hard to reunite children with their families, and estimated over half fall into that category. Others may be placed with relatives or into foster care.
The individual love and attention given to each child was clear on a Saturday as a birthday party was held for a boy who turned 3.
Bowman said the Dawn Brancheau Foundation helped make the celebration possible.
"They sponsored us and gave us $1,000 to pay for all the kids' birthday parties throughout the year," Bowman said.
The home relies heavily on generous donors, fundraising and grants.
Bowman said a stipend received from the state covers only a small fraction of expenses, which totaled almost $514,000 last year.
She said those who would like to help can contribute money and gift cards, or gather items such as diapers, cleaning supplies and toys.
Information on how to contact the home can be found at www.nazarethhome.com.
SISTERS STAY INVOLVED
Although the staff today is comprised of all lay people, the sisters do still have a presence.
Sister Margaret Anne Henss volunteered for years at the home prior to taking on a new assignment that allows her to visit only occasionally.
"I see it as such a great ministry that we sponsor and I wanted to be a part of it," Henss said.
She made it back to the home for the birthday party and fell right back into the routine as she bounced a content 6-month-old on her lap.
Henss comes from a southern Illinois family in which she was the eldest of 13 children and grew up playing with babies.
"It's been proven that if we don't get the love and care when we're little," Henss said, "it affects us as we're growing up."